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Drilling Rig

Figure 1. Drilling into Marcellus Shale (Google Images)

GSA Critical Issue: Hydraulic Fracturing


Hydraulic fracturing is a technological process used in the development of natural gas and oil resources. Used commercially since the 1940s, it has only relatively recently been used to extract gas and oil from shales and other tight reserves (Fig. 1). Development of lower cost, more effective fracturing fluids [1], with horizontal well drilling and subsurface imaging, created a technological breakthrough that is largely responsible for the increase in domestic production of shale gas in the last few years and longer for tight gas (Fig. 2) [2, 3]. Continued use of hydraulic fracturing can be expected, given projections of future shale gas and tight gas contributions to total U.S. gas production (Fig. 3), unless it is banned or replaced by other technologies [4, 5]. Hydraulic fracturing has expanded oil and gas development to new areas of the United States (Fig. 4) and internationally, including Canada, Australia, and Argentina [6, 42, 43]. In contrast, some governments have limited the use of hydraulic fracturing. For example, South Africa only recently lifted a moratorium, New York State has a moratorium, and France has banned its use [7, 8, 9].

Hydraulic fracturing has become a highly contentious public policy issue because of concerns about the environmental and health effects of its use. What are the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing? What are the health risks from the chemicals injected into the ground? Will it take away water needed for food production and cities? Does it trigger earthquakes? Does expansion of this technology for fossil fuels mean a decreased commitment to renewable energy technology?